By now I know many of you have seen the article that ran in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago regarding NASCAR and how the bloom may be off the rose. In fact, the title of the article is a lot more harsh than that – saying that NASCAR has “hit the skids”. A few of you e-mailed the article to me. It’s a good article that not only points out what we already knew about NASCAR’s woes in attendance, sponsorship and ratings – but it goes much further. It digs deep into the schism within the France family that founded NASCAR.
The article also goes into some of the various tweaks (some say gimmicks) that NASCAR has thrown out there to try and reverse a very disturbing trend that has seen NASCAR fall from the 800-pound gorilla in the room just a decade ago, to almost a weekend afterthought.
Some IndyCar fans are almost giddy as they watch the bully that seemingly stole their fans away over the last two decades, now fall flat on their face just as IndyCar did in the nineties. They point to IndyCar as the rare example of a sports entity that actually had rising TV ratings last season over the previous year.
But IndyCar fans might want to think twice before becoming overly jubilant at NASCAR’s troubling trend. If NASCAR falters, does that mean that IndyCar profits? I’m not so sure.
I’ll be the first to admit that I chuckle the loudest every time NASCAR trots out some new gimmick or manufactures unnecessary drama. When their idea of segmented races was announced, I scoffed at it (and still do). But there’s a difference in laughing at some of their desperate gimmicks as opposed to taking joy in their misfortune.
I tend to think that one form of motorsports failing is bad for all of motorsports. NASCAR seemed to enjoy IndyCar’s tumble out of the spotlight in the late nineties. They thought it meant for fans for them. For a while it did.
NASCAR rose in popularity at the same time that IndyCar was falling into obscurity. Then two things happened simultaneously – Fox Sports began broadcasting NASCAR races in 2001 and Dale Earnhardt died before everyone’s eyes in the very first race for Fox. Suddenly, non-race fans tuned into NASCAR races for the first time – possibly out of morbid curiosity. Whatever the reason, those tuning in for the first time in quite a while were also seeing a fresh way to broadcast races that they had never seen before. Consequently, NASCAR exploded overnight.
Suddenly it was cool to be a NASCAR fan. What had previously been a niche sport mostly followed south of the Mason-Dixon line, was now being discussed around water-coolers in every walk of life in all parts of the country. Odd as it seemed, the snooty folks were the ones talking about Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
In the meantime, IndyCar struggled and scrapped for fans and relevance. The Split was still ongoing> Fans were confused with why there were two open-wheel series. Most of the names they knew drove in a series that did not race in the Indianapolis 500. It was all too confusing. It was easier just to follow NASCAR. They had the stars and their drivers names were more familiar and easier to pronounce. NASCAR was on a roll that appeared to have so much momentum that it could never be stopped.
Fast-forward fifteen years. Those fans that showed up so quickly in 2001, left just as quickly. Sprint also left as a title sponsor. What was hoped to be a $100 million replacement sponsor ended up as a $20 million sponsor they were lucky to get in Monster Energy. Their hard-core fans feel as if they have been jettisoned in pursuit of younger fans.
Now that the fickle fans of a decade ago have left NASCAR, they realize that the hard-core fans have hurt feelings and are now older. There aren’t many in line to take their place as they age and eventually die off. Bill France, Jr. died in 2007 after turning over the CEO reins to his son, Brian in 2003. Since then, gimmick after gimmick has been tried so much that the sport doesn’t resemble what it looked like twenty years ago. And according to the article, Brian and sister Lesa France Kennedy apparently have been feuding for a while on what is the best direction for the series founded by their grandfather in 1947.
In the meantime, IndyCar has slowly but surely built some momentum. The two series reconciled into one in 2008. The Hulman-George had their own differences in the direction of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, culminating with the ouster of Tony George as CEO. After the CEO tenures of Jeff Belskus and Randy Bernard, Mark Miles assumed the role and made some curious moves at first. There are several things that Miles has done that I still don’t agree with, but he has made one move that was brilliant. He hired Jay Frye in 2013 and promoted him as President of Competition after Derrick Walker left following the 2015 season.
It didn’t take long at all for Frye to become the face of the series early in the 2016 season, while Miles works behind the scenes. It seems that more and more big decisions are made by Frye, and they all seem to be the right ones. While Mark Miles may still have the title of CEO, Jay Frye appears to be the man in charge and is leading IndyCar down the right path.
Skeptics say that IndyCar had nowhere to go but up, after dwelling in obscurity for two decades. That’s not true. There was another direction for IndyCar – extinction. Jay Frye has help to stave off extinction and seems to have a plan where the series can actually flourish in the not-so-distant future.
So are IndyCar’s fortunes tied to NASCAR’s problems? In my opinion, no. It’s purely coincidental.
As I said earlier, I tend to be a believer that all boats rise. In my opinion, I think a healthy NASCAR would help fuel the momentum that IndyCar is enjoying right now. Now that NASCAR is ailing, it may not hurt IndyCar – but I think IndyCar would benefit from a healthy NASCAR.
All sports are at a crossroads in today’s environment. Even the mighty NFL is having to rethink ways to entice new fans for the first time. Each sport has its own set of challenges it is facing and they will need to devise a plan on how to deal with it. But if you are enjoying watching NASCAR struggle – don’t. IndyCar needs them to succeed.